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Album review: Hold Steady’s ‘Dreams’ lacks spark

It takes only a couple of verses for vocalist Craig Finn to drop a Minnesota city name on the latest Hold Steady album “Teeth Dreams.”

They’re a New York band with deep roots in Minnesota — Finn and guitarist Tad Kubler came from the much-loved Lifter Puller, which broke up in the early aughts — and Finn can’t help himself but namecheck St. Cloud right out of the gate this time around. Minnesota landmarks, towns, street names and whatnot pepper his lyrics much like references to hate pepper Trent Reznor’s or references to expensive fashions pepper Kanye West’s.

Mining Minnesota for imagery is Finn’s milieu.

But the thing that makes him so unique and such an interesting frontman is also the thing that makes him a bit of a tough pill to swallow. Basically, this band is composed of some guys who play fairly generic bar rock with another guy talk-rapping over it in a hectoring auctioneer voice. This just gets old after a while. The nuance-free, Bruce Springsteen-like music gets old even quicker.

But saying this isn’t much fun because Finn is clearly an intelligent, magnetic presence with a perspective that belongs to him and him alone. He seems like a decent dude who is just doing what he does the way he wants to do it. But, darn it, his band is boring.

“Teeth Dreams” starts with “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You,” and Finn is back to his old tricks, talking about street gangs running around or whatever. There’s a lyric about “stocking up for World War 4” that probably isn’t a reference to the movie “Strange Brew,” but one can fantasize. “For me, it was mostly the music / a crew to go to the shows with,” Finn speak-sings. It’s his usual modus operandi: talk about people slithering around on the streets, rocking and rolling, trying to get by on scraps.

The band churns behind him; they’re kicking it nicely. There’s some good tremolo guitar and wiggly bent notes from Kubler and second guitarist Steve Selvidge, but it all seems like window dressing for the lyrics. The words call for anthemic music, and so there it is. But it mostly sounds like modern Foo Fighters or Against Me! or some other overproduced, overcompressed radio band. Producer Nick Raskulinecz does a good job making the album sound totally pro, but he does a bad job making it sound interesting or soulful at all in the music department.

As the album progresses, this assessment can apply to much of the material, unfortunately. It just kind of cruises along, not really making much of an impact. It has all the guts of a Wallflowers or Counting Crows album at the end of the day.

Finn makes some admirable attempts to transition to a more melodic vocal style in parts, but as in “Spinners,” it just ends up sounding like B-sides from one of the overblown recent Springsteen albums. In fact, there are points where Finn seems to be actively copping The Boss’ cadence as a stylistic choice. Really, who needs that?

If you’ve been a fan of The Hold Steady in the past, “Teeth Dreams” might work for you, especially since it’s been four years since their last album. But if you’re just starting with these guys, go back and check out their first few records. Unfortunately, it seems like The Hold Steady is following the pattern that so many bands do, where later albums are not bad but overcooked and missing whatever spark was there in the first place.

The Hold Steady / ‘Teeth Dreams’

Producer: Nick Raskulinecz

Website: theholdsteady.net

Personnel: Craig Finn (vocals/guitar), Tad Kubler (guitar), Bobby Drake (drums), Galen Polivka (bass), Steve Selvidge (guitar)

Listen to “Spinners”

Tony Bennett reviews music for the News Tribune. He can be reached at tonybennettreviews@gmail.com.

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